As the Patriots learned two years ago, it's not about pursuing 19-0, it's about pursuing victory in the final game. Maybe when this season is over, a three-game skid to end the regular season, including home losses to the Cowboys and Buccaneers, will turn out to be the springboard his Saints needed entering the playoffs. Momentum can be a fleeting thing, but the Saints grabbed firm control of it Saturday when they crushed the Cardinals 45-14.
A city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina nearly 4 1/2 years ago now hosts the NFC championship game in the building that once was home to displaced residents. "Who dat!" the fans chanted Saturday night as they filed out of the Superdome. A franchise that never has reached the Super Bowl is one victory from a Feb. 7 date in Miami.
Afterward, Payton whose team hadn't played a meaningful game in three weeks, downplayed the magnificence of the victory over the defending NFC champions.
"I thought in all three phases we played a real good game," Payton said. "We came off a stretch where we had all the advantages of being rested. We played with a lot of energy."
Drew Brees completed 23 of 32 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns. He threw a 17-yard score to Jeremy Shockey, connected with Devery Henderson on a 44-yarder off a flea-flicker and hit Marques Colston for a 2-yarder before halftime to put the Saints ahead 35-14 against a secondary that lost cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to a knee injury and free safety Antrel Rolle to a concussion.
"We were tired of the questions (about the layoff)," Brees said. "We wanted to get it going. It was hard for anybody to understand that plan if you're not a member of my team, but we trusted in that plan, that process. We executed throughout the week and it showed."
There will be speculation about whether this was the final game for 38-year-old Kurt Warner, and if that's the case it will mark the end of a special career. Warner willed the Cardinals to this point with his effort in a victory over the Packers, but the Cardinals surrendered 90 points in two playoff games. He was sidelined briefly with a rib injury when Bobby McCray blindsided him trying to make a play on Will Smith after an interception.
"A big hit like that makes you think twice about playing this game," Warner with a laugh. "I have a lot of ideas in my head, but what I need to do is get away from the season and talk it over with my wife. As I've told you a million times before, (retirement) is something I will think about and answer later. I don't think it will be a long and drawn-out process."
Reggie Bush scored on a 46-yard run in the first quarter as the Saints bolted to a 21-7 lead after the Cardinals' Tim Hightower had a 70-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. It was the longest run in postseason history for the Saints, and Bush later added an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown.
If the Cowboys win Sunday at Minnesota, it will set up a rematch of the Week 15 meeting. The Cowboys simply beat up the Saints 24-17 here to give them their first loss. But, as they chanted into the night in the revelry nearby, "Who dat say they gonna beat dem Saints?"